Isaac And Ishmael, An Allegory

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. (Galatians 4:22-23)

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” [Genesis 21:10] Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:28-31)

Another way to say it is that one of Abraham’s sons was born of the flesh while the other was born of the Spirit. When Sarah took matters into her own hands and gave Hagar to Abraham, they produced a son in the natural way, the biological union of egg and sperm.

But when Sarah was 90 and Abraham 100, Isaac was born. By all accounts it was a miracle, a supernatural event. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:6-7)

The Allegory
This makes a great model of the believer’s life. First we’re born in the natural way, born of the flesh, the biological union of egg and sperm, like Ishmael. Later we’re born again, in a supernatural way, born of the spirit, like Isaac.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6)

Being born of water refers to the fact that in our mother’s womb, we matured in a sack of amniotic fluid, or water. As the birth process began, our mother’s “water broke” and we were soon delivered, born of the flesh. Later, when we asked the Lord to forgive us and received Him as our Savior, we were born again, born of the Spirit. The Lord said that just one birth won’t do. It takes both to enter into the Kingdom.

Paul also spoke of the result of our first birth as the flesh. Our flesh is like Ishmael, older, bigger, stronger. He’s self-directed and self-centered, used to being the only one, used to calling the shots. He’s experienced and independent, and acts on his own initiative. In assessing a situation, he says, “Self, what’s best for me?”

Our spirit starts out like Isaac, younger, smaller, weaker. He’s God directed and God centered. He’s a newcomer, inexperienced and dependent. He consults with the Spirit of God. In assessing a situation, he says, “Lord, what’s best for you?”

The flesh doesn’t like the spirit, he thinks he’s weak and taunts him. He tries to assert his control over him, to push him aside, to silence his voice.

This is the challenge we’re faced with when we’re born again. Which one do we put in charge? Students of architecture learn that the weakness of any structure will present itself under stress. And so it is with us. As long as we go about our routine lives and don’t try anything out of the ordinary they get along OK. But whenever an unusual situation confronts us there’s stress, and the flesh immediately goes into attack mode to prevent the spirit from exerting any control. This could be anything from deciding how to respond when we’ve been put upon or rejected all the way up to deciding whether to give our earthly life in service to the Lord out of gratitude for receiving eternal life because of Him.

Ishmael wasn’t interested in God’s plan for Abraham’s offspring. He was the first born and resented the intrusion of this newcomer in his family, usurping his rights. Similarly, our flesh isn’t interested in God’s plan for our life, only in the fulfillment of selfish desires.

We might think that Sarah was being her usual dominant self when she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. After all, the whole thing had been her idea. And Abraham felt terrible about it because Ishmael was his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” (Genesis 21:12)

Paul told us to make the same decision. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:16-17)

Our Greatest Power
The flesh and the spirit cannot co-exist. They have only you in common. Salvation brings a new heart and a new spirit but not new flesh. We have to learn to walk by the spirit and deny the flesh, to prefer God’s will for our lives over our own. Paul exhorted us not to conform any longer to the pattern of the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. (Romans 12:2) He said that we could be made new in the attitudes of our minds. (Ephes. 4:23) He was talking about learning to exercise our greatest power to drive out the flesh.

He said that this power is like the working of God’s mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms. (Ephes. 1:20) He said that it’s a divine power that can demolish strongholds (bad habits and attitudes) and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (bad information). (2 Cor. 10:3-5)

This power is the God-given ability to choose whatever response we desire to any circumstance that confronts us. It sounds so simple, and yet it can have a profound effect on our lives. Think of it. We can say “No” to that next cigarette, or drink, or snack, or come-on, or any other temptation. When someone hurts us we can respond in love instead of anger. We can choose patience over frustration. We can turn the other cheek, give more than is required, forgive and even forget.

Although it’s that simple, it’s not easy. Remember, the flesh is older, bigger, stronger. It’s used to calling the shots, and won’t give up easily. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. All of our lives, the flesh has been in charge. It’s not going to suddenly step aside just because we’ve invited  the Holy Spirit to reside within us. As long as we’re on this Earth there will be contention between the flesh and the Spirit. Remember, Isaac and Ishmael have been at it for 4000 years.

And of course there will be times when we choose to let the flesh win. We’ll be having a bad day, or be caught off guard, or we’ll be out of fellowship due to some unconfessed sin. And the flesh will be “crouching at our door” just as it was with Cain. (Genesis 4:7) Like Cain, we’ll forget that it’s our job to master it and we’ll do something stupid.

But because of the cross, we won’t be banished. God, who knows the end from the beginning, foresaw this sin and nailed it to the cross with all the others. Since we’ve accepted His death as payment for our sins, He’s chosen to always see us as we will be instead of as we are. 2 Cor. 5:17 says that in His eyes we’re a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come. So He’s able to distinguish the person from the performance and says, “That’s not my child. My child is as righteous as I am. (2 Cor. 5:21) That’s the flesh that dwells within my child.” (Romans 7:17) So, as soon as we confess we’re forgiven, the sin is forgotten, and we’re purified from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Exercising our power of choice is like every other form of exercise. At the beginning it’s a lot of effort for very little result. But as we persevere the effort gets easier and the results become more noticeable. And like other forms of exercise, it feels uncomfortable at the beginning. That’s because the flesh creates feelings to prompt our choices. The person who says, “If it feels good, do it!” is speaking out of his flesh. At the beginning, feelings are almost never a good indicator of choice.

The Spirit recalls the Word of God to our minds and prompts us to act accordingly. That means we’ll be making “contrary-to-feelings” choices. The question “What would Jesus do?” although misused by many, was intended to remind us to act in accordance with the Spirit’s promptings.

So, though our war with the flesh won’t be won until we receive our perfected bodies, God has given us the power to defeat it every time we choose to engage. (Joshua 10:25)

Time And Eternity
Defeating the flesh has both temporal and eternal benefits. In this life it’s the key to the abundant life Jesus promised. The Lord’s promises are real so if they’re not being fulfilled in our lives, then our flesh must be preventing it, because the spirit wants for us what the Lord wants. Defeating the flesh helps remove the obstacles that are blocking the fulfillment of His promises.

Defeating the flesh also wins the victory crown in eternity. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) It’s one of the things that will cause the Lord to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness!” as He hands you your crown. That alone should make the effort worthwhile. Selah 06-30-07